This city unfolds along a watery spine. Small fishing hooks dip into the water from both sides, and white birds rest among the waves. In a park, a child wearing rubber boots topples into a flock of pigeons. A golden dog closes its eyes. Some buildings here are also Russian dolls: a church inside a mosque inside a museum. Your fingernails might split when you try to peel back the layers. The light here streams through small windows, and splinters into spider threads that breeze against your face. You will try to collect the thread, and it will always disappear by the time you return home, but if you’re lucky you’ll find a baby spider in your pocket. Leave it on your favourite windowsill and watch.
Driving there you will think you’re seeing faces in the rock. Coney caves spiral up in the valley, with smoke pouring from their tops. A woman mourned her lost child here by carving her way into every rock with a spoon. Inside each cave there are endless rooms.
This city was built underground following a small disaster. One day, a woman sat alone outside and a raven landed beside her. After a brief hesitation, she stood up and moved away, but the raven followed her. It hopped and cawed and no matter where she went it followed. She saw a picnic blanket abandoned in the grass and rolled herself in it to avoid the raven’s gaze. But more birds arrived. Their beaks glistened and their throats bobbed. Still more circled overhead until the sky was a thick, dark cloud. The old men had seen a black sky like this before, and began making tunnels in their basements to hide their wives and children in. While the tunnels became rooms, which branched into more tunnels, the ravens flapped around the woman’s head and their claws got caught in her hair. More ravens came and the sun disappeared behind them and things began to crumble as they tore out chunks. The city tunnelled faster. They even had rooms for livestock, baptisms, and making wine.
The geography of her body discovered, it didn’t matter that they’d seen a thousand breasts and that her body was largely unremarkable, that they hadn’t been tantalized by it before the photos materialized in their hands, all that mattered was that it had been unveiled to them.
Columbus wore a similar smile, his face split in triumph, when he first caught sight of a dark line, just a hint of land on the horizon, really no different from a hint of upper thigh, a scar that seemed to paint a neon arrow to the unknown, but certainly destined to be known and defined by strangers until they were no longer strangers in a strange land
She shrouded her body in mischief and ample cloth so that she wouldn’t be discovered too.
I had already been thinking about the difference between the words haram and a’ayb when I stumbled upon the 2019 Arab-language series Banat al Mulakama or Boxing Girls, directed by Saudi filmmaker Samir Aref, and written by Emirati screenwriter Afnan Al Qasimi. Aref and Al Qasimi aim to combat stigma and prejudice in Gulf society against and surrounding Gulf women. The series follows Nujood, as she studies boxing in California and then returns home to Saudi to confront the challenges of continuing to box in her native society. The series also focuses on other young women, each with their own complicated relationship to a narrow-minded society. These young women fight and face their circumstances to overcome obstacles and achieve their aspirations.
Women in the Gulf tend to have more cultural restrictions than men. Even though some actions are permitted in Islam, the word a’ayb is thrown with abandon at women specifically. The literal translation of the Arabic word a’ayb is a “disadvantage or flaw” but colloquially it is mostly used to mean “stigma, shame or taboo.” The phrase a’ayb a’alayk, — ‘shame on you’ — is another term that is appropriated by groups of conservatives in the Gulf, towards perceived shameful acts. For example, in Boxing Girls, when Nujood loses during her college championship, she physically attacks her opponent and is then called “America’s crazy woman” by her Arab Instagram followers. Many of her relatives criticize her for pursuing an education in boxing, which harms her self-esteem and leads her to reject Saudi society further.
Boxing is not necessarily haram, (a word which means forbidden according to Islam). In fact, there are several sports that were practiced during the Prophet’s era, such as wrestling, fencing, foot racing, archery, swimming, and horse racing. Considering the hadith; “Any action without remembrance of Allah is either diversion or heedlessness excepting four acts: Walking from target to target (during archery practice), training a horse, playing with one’s family and learning to swim (Sahih AlMuslim).” Boxing is doing something good within Islam because it keeps you healthy. Yett the stigma persists. Some perceive it as a shame because a woman is not supposed to show herself on TV, study abroad alone, post her photos on Instagram, or attack a competitor outside of the ring. This is why it’s important to distinguish between the haram and a’ayb because society so often casts Nujood or women like Nujood out as the former. A woman is not necessarily a good Muslim just because she follows her society’s ideologies. A female boxer who eschews her society’s ideologies of shame, can still be a devout Muslim.
Boxing also carries negative connotations of violence and masculinity, especially in the Gulf. Through boxing, women are in danger of developing less feminine traits, which challenges their expected roles as soft, subordinate, petite, and motherly. But some women are neither all soft or all hard, and it is impossible to expect them all to be one thing.
There are several examples of women who are currently breaking the mold between haram and a’ayab. For example, women driving in Saudi Arabia is no longer haram but a’ayb, and I am proud that Saudi women fought for those rights with the Women2Drive campaign. Other examples that are now a’ayb in Gulf societies: going out of your house alone as a single mother or divorced woman, going to see a therapist, working as a taxi driver, having a different opinion than the majority of people, and even having discussions about menstrual cycles that can actually benefit women to know more about their health. Menstrual cycles should be specifically talked about because of the fasting ritual in Islam and how that can affect the female body.
To combat the rigidity of labels and their connotations, as Gulf sisters we can all support each other and not put each other down. Unfortunately, women also contribute to repressing other women. Gulf sisters, let’s applaud and lift each other up, let’s embrace each other’s collective failure, and learn from our mistakes as a sisterhood. Leave the competition in the rink, as Nujood says: “People here, if you succeed they applaud you a little, but if you did something and it fails (humiliating), they tell you you’re crazy.”
The map of Houston, Texas looks like a star break on a windshield. When the glass has been pierced by a sharp point, leaving a spiral of injury. Perhaps, due to a stone. A bullet. On the fourth track of Solange Knowles’ new album When I Get Home, there are gunshots. You could almost miss it; the clocking of the gun, interspersed with its firing, is so effortlessly melded into the melody. Much like news of recent deaths often sink beneath the frantic newness of news.
Unlike this album’s predecessor, the magnificent A Seat at the Table, When I Get Home is less construction than map, a route along the roots of a steady, reflective driver: Solange. She is credited as a writer on every track. But it’s important to acknowledge that this is not her story – “I realize how much wider, figuratively and literally, my work could be if I took myself away as subject” – but stories, plural, that are narrated by her. Here, Solange creates conceptual cartography: of her Southern roots, of black empowerment, black women, and their intersections with their own personal and collective histories, and their love, spirituality, emotions, and power.
There are numerous, predominantly black, collaborators on this album, all in various capacities, ranging from features, production to writing. The lineup includes such names as Tyler, the Creator, The Dream, Metro Boomin’, Pharrell, The Dream, Cassie, Earl Sweatshirt, Gucci Mane, Raphael Saadiq, Abra, and Playboi Carti. The most interesting “collaborations” however are the interludes featuring a variety of black female voices, including the artist’s. One interlude is titled “Can I Hold the Mic” which choppily samples a video of crunk group Crime Mob’s female rappers Diamond and Princess faux-interviewing each other – “Uh, bitch, can I hold the mic?” This leads into a spoken-word section by Solange herself:
“I can’t be a singular expression of myself, there’s too many parts, too many spaces, too many manifestations, too many lines, too many curves, too many troubles, too many journeys, too many mountains, too many rivers, so many – “
This instability of identity, of the failure to contain and distill Solange’s specific experience as a black woman, perhaps explains her decision to produce a sonic map instead, one that stops focusing on an inconstant, non-singular self, but instead actually charts out the terrain of self, exploring those many “mountains” and “rivers” that make up her emotional-historical-cultural-political being and existence. Part of this is paying a nod to those that came before her; on S McGregor, Solange includes a recording of Houston-born women Debbie Allen and Phylicia Rashad reciting a poem by their prolific mother Vivian Ayers: “I boarded a train/Kissed all goodbye.” The track comes very early in the album, right after the repetitive, one-liner opener Things I Imagined, as if to foreshadow the movement, both literal and figurative, and the endings or goodbyes that Solange has undertaken to realize her visions. When she asks Can I Hold the Mic, it is not to profess a personal declaration, not to ask to be accepted as one self, or embodiment of self, not even to ask for a seat at the table, but instead, to ask us, to invite the world, along with her as she moves and retraces the “lines” and “curves” of her map of being.
The cartography begins, as Solange’s life itself did, in Texas. If the map of Houston, her city, is a fractured spiral, then it revolves around its blackness. Houston Third Ward, where Solange grew up, is known for its black community. It was a civil rights epicenter in the sixties and had the first nonprofit hospital for black patients in the thick of the Jim Crow era. A profile by The New York Times Style Magazine states that “[Solange’s] output is infused by a fundamental orientation – culturally, politically, psychically – to blackness.” And this is her central spin throughout. Solange frequently incorporates the chopped n screwed hip-hop style in her core jazz and hip-hop music, inflecting her work with black musical forms that specifically nod to her city. A song celebrating black and brown things – “Black baes, black days”‘ – is named Almeda, an area in south-west Houston. S McGregor is for S MacGregor Way, where the aforementioned sisters Debbie Allen and Phylicia Rashad grew up. Way to the Show’s “candy paint” lyric pays homage to Houston’s staple slab scene, where cars are painted to look candy-coated. Meanwhile, Beltway refers to the road looping around Houston, which, on the tracklist, is cleverly followed by Exit Scott, a real exit off the Beltway 8 in southern Houston. In visuals for the album, Solange prominently features a ranch, with horses and dancers in modern cowboy outfits. “Hundreds and hundreds of people every weekend are getting on horses and trail-riding from Texas to Louisiana,” Solange told Billboard. “It’s a part of black history you don’t hear about.” It is clear the geography serves as scaffolding for the album, propping up every vision executed by the artist.
It is in Exit Scott (interlude) where Solange showcases the poetry of Pat Parker, a lesbian black woman from Houston itself. The poem is about love. In the intermission, We Deal With the Freak’n, Solange includes audio of Alexyss Tylor from her show Sperm Power 2: “We are not only sexual beings, we are the walking embodiment of god consciousness”, a track that is preceded by the Gucci Mane feature My Skin My Logo, which contains an outro resembling sexual climax. Solange explores the nuances and spaces of black love and sexuality through the lens of actual black women, from Parker to Tylor, each exercising agency and ownership of their sexual and romantic narratives.
These also expand to the topic of spirituality. In ‘Nothing Without Intention’, Solange cites the black beauty blogger Goddess Lula Belle’s video on Florida water, an item Solange carried with her to the Met Gala in 2018. Florida water is a unisex cologne made with alcohol and essential oils, used for purification, spells and spiritual cleansing. It is also a prominent part of Afro-American spiritual culture. In the track Almeda, there is a lyric that declares “Black faith still can’t be washed away/ Not even in that Florida water.” Solange simultaneously celebrates black spirituality while asserting the resilience and strength of black faith as transcending every hope symbolized by any spiritual object; black faith is stronger than any spell. On top of that, the refrain “nothing without intention” is a call to the listener, perhaps, to examine Solange’s full cartography as painstakingly and thoroughly mapped. As in an exquisitely made poem, every element is cherry-picked for maximum fruition. But invoking intention is also a rallying cry to her community, to the black community, to the black women before, with, and after her, to know and find and search for their beauty and being.
The title My Skin My Logo is a reclamation of the idea of using blackness as a brand (re: blaxploitation) and exacting power over it. Binz offers a similar celebration of wealth in this lens – “Dollars never come on CP time/ Wish I could wake up on CP time” – where CP time is ‘colored people time’, a historically derogatory phrase used to imply that black people were lazy and tardy. Solange basks in her wealth and power, spinning the narrative that has historically held people like her down for their success.
Pride, having pride in an inconstant state of self and history, and comfort with this pride, are key factors of When I Get Home. A lyric in My Skin My Logo states to “blackberry the masses”, a gorgeous play on words that recalls the saying “The darker the berry, the sweeter the juice”, which elevates dark skin. At the same time, there is the darker double meaning in “bury the masses.” It’s an invocation, to and for the black community, that is sweet-bitter; like the Houston cars lacquered to look like candy, this lyric draws on both the pain and beauty of blackness in a political world, invoking, above all, hope, the sweetness and necessity of it.
In the same NYT magazine profile mentioned earlier, Solange recalls being afraid of the Holy Ghost as a young girl at church. This fear, not just of that imaginary phantom, but a wide-encompassing fear, found in the pit of every artist’s chest, manifests in the intro track Things I Imagined. Solange ends this song with the lyric “Takin’ on the lie.” By the time we reach the last track, Solange no longer imagines but declares: I’m a Witness. This song transforms the old lyric into “Takin’ on the light.” There is a movement here between imagination and vision, fear and realization, off-track to grounded, intention to execution. In When I Get Home, a title itself implying a road and destination tied to self, Solange sketches for us this journey, maps out the paths that have led her to this exact moment as both artist and woman and black being. How strange, how searching, and how beautiful it all is.
In a dark, shadowy forest barely lit by an eclipsing blood moon, a young girl walks through the trees towards distant candlelight and voices. As she approaches, her wedding dress turns black. The clearing is filled with relatives and family acquaintances, eagerly waiting. In the middle there lies a large leather-bound book: The Book of the Beast, in which she needs to sign her name away to the devil. This is the night of Sabrina Spellman’s dark baptism.
When I was little, I wanted to be a witch. I ran around the woods next to my house with my best friend and pretended I was flying on a broom, fighting magical enemies. I fell asleep chanting spells. Any animal I came across was a potential familiar to bring me to the magical world.
A witch is not simply the female equivalent of wizard. There are witches who do not carry wands and who conjure up very different kinds of spells. Witches who were burnt at the stake and caused mischief around them. I wanted to be that kind of witch too. I wanted to be like Sabrina Spellman, both from the original sitcom and the animated spinoff “Sabrina the Teenage Witch.”
Sabrina went to a regular high school and dealt with normal, human problems. Except her powers granted her options that normal humans didn’t have. She tackled her bullies with spells and had a talking cat who gave her advice. The magic world offered her an escape from school drama. Who wouldn’t love the liberty of ditching their homework to deal with an evil clone? I wished my name was as cool as Sabrina’s or my hair as pretty. Except, my cat wasn’t even black, let alone talking.
Sabrina remained in the hazy realm of childhood along with my bubbly fantasies of magic. I knew that watching the show again would bore me. Her problems were too trivial now; she wouldn’t have fulfilled my teenage cravings for moral ambiguity.
In October of 2018 Netflix treated me to a welcome surprise, announcing an original show based on a much darker iteration of the goofy witch story, called “Chilling Adventures of Sabrina” (CAOS). Sabrina had grown up. After all, the devil himself was listed as a character. I decided it was time for Sabrina to catch up with me.
Once the show released, I couldn’t tear myself away from the screen. Once again, Sabrina had managed to bewitch me.
Today’s supernatural stories are almost synonymous with escapism. Fantasy either seduces us into an idyllic image of an alternative past or introduces a different universe hiding in the midst of our realities. Either way, its landscape is far removed from our own. Even if its issues echo those we face, the means to resolve them are unrealistic, bordering on wish fulfilment. Fantasy veils the magnitude of the real world problems with magical solutions that we can never physically access.
Except Sabrina of CAOS is, as pointed out by the actress playing her, “a woke witch.” This show about witchcraft has an overt political agenda in line with modern feminist messages. The first episode has Sabrina instating a female empowerment club at her high school, which she says is based on a witches coven.That storyline continues throughout the show, but becomes overshadowed by the development of the main plot: Sabrina’s upcoming “dark baptism” and her following indoctrination into the witch realm.
It quickly becomes apparent that the witch world is a stringent patriarchy. Absolute devotion to Lucifer is required in exchange for supernatural powers, with a scene of a witch kissing his hooves. Sabrina hesitates to sign her name and soul away, saying “Why does the Dark Lord get to decide what I do with my body?” Her dark baptism uses the language of marriage, stating that she needs to save herself, physically and mentally, for servitude to a powerful male figure. She struggles with the system she is placed in because she wants to have both freedom and power but her society makes the two mutually exclusive. “The thought of any of us having both terrifies him”, another witch explains to Sabrina. “He’s a man, isn’t he?” The same words could ring just as true for women in many offices and government cabinets, far removed from the fantastical world of the show.
The enduring myth of witchcraft has long been one of female power. By becoming a servant of the devil rather than one of god, a woman could hope to take control and agency, even if that freedom came at the price of giving up traditional religious promises of a peaceful afterlife and instead surrendering one’s soul to the devil. According to “The Witch in History” by Diane Purkiss, such a myth was perpetuated more by women. It helped them to express the unspeakable, which was their desire to overcome social constraint. Witches transcend limitations. They are scary precisely because they do not obey traditional conceptions of morality.
In late October I was on a train to a small town in the Czech Republic. My boyfriend and I rushed into the car minutes before departure and struggled to look for free seats. Eventually, we came across three vacant spots, two of them next to each other. As we settled in and took out our travel snacks, the door opened. A man walked in and stood in front of me. He pointed at the vacant seat across, signaling for me to move. As I looked at him, I saw anger in his half-closed drooping eyes. The more I lingered, the more I worried he would hit me. He was bigger than me. He looked at me as if I were a dog who had taken a shit on his carpet. I silently switched seats. The rest of the train ride was spent in silence as I hid the tears streaming down my face with a book. I wished I could have said something. I wished I could have harmed him.
At our destination, Kutna Hora, we visited a church famous for being decorated entirely with human bones. As we stood among crucifixes and chandeliers assembled from the remains of over 60,000 people, I found myself thinking of the man on the train. He would too, one day, become no more than bones. The entirety of his being, including the reasons for his seeming entitlement, will boil down to a set of gray objects that could be rearranged as the base of a lantern.
Witches also embody a fascination with death. A contract with the devil allows them to learn otherwise inaccessible control over the afterlife. While traditional religion promises heaven or peace on the condition of following a certain moral standard in life, witchcraft allows for a certainty about a postmortal destiny without further restriction after the initial deal has been made. Witches don’t have to fear death, and because of that, they don’t fear killing. In mainstream Western culture, traditionally the deceased is dressed in his or her best clothes and treated with a notion of respect as the corpse is put into a coffin and lowered into the ground. Witches, much like the (surprisingly, Catholic) person who arranged the bones in Kutna Hora church, feel no need to treat the dead with reverence. Life can be taken away at whim and the body is an object of ritual. Even postmortem, the dead are sacrificed for the comfort of the living.
When dissatisfied with her principal, Sabrina sends an army of spiders into his house at night,
knowing that arachnids are his greatest fear. In her world, enemies are obstacles to be eliminated. The powers of a witch come with the liberty to control the fate of others. I couldn’t help wishing, in the moment, that I could destroy that man on the train and watch him join the pile of skulls at the church. If I were a witch, I might not have hesitated to take revenge when disrespected. But I couldn’t. And I am glad.
Power does indeed come with responsibility. CAOS is conscious that power can be abused. Sabrina’s heroism is dangerous and often at odds with the show’s reality, harming those around her. Her pretty rhetoric claiming that rules can be circumvented for the sake of her wishes has to give in to the weight of consequence. Sabrina constantly acts in the name of rebellion and yet fails to notice how often her actions serve the system rather than oppose it.
The fantastical doesn’t have to be synonymous with escapism, and CAOS demonstrates that pop culture is catching up with a better use for these narrative tools. Witchcraft has been entangled in battle with mainstream social norms through a lot of Western history and this show pays tribute to that legacy. However, simply because something is counter-culture does not mean that it is devoid of problems that it attempts to criticize. Mindless opposition may be just as dangerous as blind acceptance, and while Sabrina may believe in herself as an agent for radical change, even her power comes at the expense of something else, be it freedom or humanity.
Gaining supernatural abilities does not excuse one from moral responsibility, even if it can cloud perception of it. A cat talks only if he is a cursed warlock or a recruited demon, and a witch who kills is still a murderer. Even a magical world has consequences, and I don’t think I want to be a witch anymore.
References Diane Purkiss. The Witch in History: Early modern and twentieth-century representations.
All the cacti died and there wasn’t even weed to roam. The sand was glowing from the heat of the sun capturing it inside themselves and he dragged his black faux boots across the dunes to reach her knees dressed in navy blue. He followed her thighs, slender and long as if a flower finally knew how to become a tree. She was four to five times his height and he took off his hat as she leaned over, looking out or up but not at him. He placed a silver quarter on her dripping pink tongue, lanky and stretched open to him. His fingernails felt later, bad water she wrapped around it, squeezing tight, drooling blood over her pearl-pointed chin. He wondered, but never waited before he watched the coin melt on her tongue. Then quickly evaporated. The sun lowered between the brown peaks behind her as she arched her head back, letting slow whisper-moans out to the coming moon she threw one long arm stretched over her head, her fingertips subtly pointed to the stars whom she may or may not have named herself. She prayed to feel this way a little longer, before night came. She prayed for more saliva to waste.
She sheared a thin slice off, a yellowish film of moonskin like sunburn peel on her fingers stolen gently. Delicately torn, lifted, floated off. (The skin– from the moonface).
She lowered her fingers with it balanced atop the tips, gently. She brought it to the lake– sunk it slow so the thing floated among the waterscums to find its place.
She didn’t hurt it. Didn’t shard moonbones or cause it to snuffle in pain. If she had, the astonished stars might have dropped dead to litter our driveways.
She said that when she finally laid down with one (a man) she didn’t feel a thing. virgin.
She said that she dragged Apollo out of Leto while he clung to the cervix, crying. hunter.
She said she littered a rapist with arrows, and cleaved another with greyhound teeth. champion of chastity.
Please! Let me keep my maidenhood. Nine-day-old midwife that I am, I love– Then you should be innocent, like your sisters. Hit the books or the hearth. No late nights at the drive in and know that yoga pants are for whores and if you kiss him in that room he’s not responsible for what he does so you’d better just come home before you kiss him My maidenhood is not– and how many girls will be there and how late will you be out and no v-necks or eyeshadow or smiling at male teachers and none of that irritating liquid can leak out from under your eyelids unless there’s something to really cry about like a sad movie or a broken heart Muffling me! better apologize before you ask a question and puncture all of your sentences and keep your voice high and wavering. Curfew is now and bring your brother and that’s not allowed, not for you, not for my daughter. The way it is. The harsh truth. Where we live. Not really up to me. Safety.
She preferred the company of women, they called it mentorship or Fierce protectiveness. A love of female… innocence. And also animals. That’s why she loved the forest; it was not an escape artist act, we swear.
And that moonskin you see floating there, well That’s just the true moon’s reflection.